Another consistent outing from Peyton Manning and a bend- but-don't break effort from the defense has the Denver Broncos on the verge of back-to-back division titles for the first time in 25 years.
They'll look to wrap up the AFC West this Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who themselves had hopes of a division title dealt a major blow last weekend.
Coming off their first division crown since 2005, the Broncos have ripped off six straight wins for a second season in a row, and at 8-3 they own a four- game lead over the second-place San Diego Chargers in the AFC West. That means that the Broncos can claim their second straight division title for the first time since 1986-87 with a win this weekend over the Buccaneers or a Chargers loss at home to the Cincinnati Bengals.
Denver, which hasn't won seven in a row since it began the 1998 season with 13 straight victories, is aiming to win its 12th AFC West title in franchise history, which would match the Oakland Raiders for the most all-time.
"Well, No. 1, we don't want to worry about all that. We want to worry about the Tampa Bay Bucs in all three phases," said Broncos head coach John Fox.
Denver extended its winning streak with a 17-9 win over the hosting Kansas City Chiefs last Sunday. Manning overcame an early interception to throw for 285 yards with two touchdown passes, while the defense held Kansas City to just three field goals, including two in the first quarter.
It marked the first time over the Broncos' winning streak that they did not top 30 points in a game and, in fact, the 17 points were a season low.
"Guys did a good job on defense. The inside guys played stout," noted defensive end Elvis Dumervil. "They got a few plays on us, but we didn't give up a touchdown. They got a couple of field goals, but we did a good job overall."
Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas hauled in four passes for 82 yards with a touchdown as he surpassed 1,000 yards receiving for the first time in his young career. His 1,015 yards on the season are the sixth-highest in the league.
Knowshon Moreno also shined in his first action since Week 2, running for 85 yards on 20 carries. He saw the bulk of work after Willis McGahee tore the MCL in his right knee in the previous week's win over the Chargers.
Tampa Bay has been putting forth an excellent effort as of late and carried a four-game winning streak into last Sunday's meeting with the NFC South-leading Atlanta Falcons. The Buccaneers gave the Falcons all they could handle, but ended up dropping a 24-23 decision to fall to 6-5 and four games behind Atlanta for the division lead.
Tampa Bay's secondary, playing without cornerback Eric Wright due to an Achilles tendon ailment, was tagged for 345 yards through the air by Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, with rookie corner Leonard Johnson getting beat for a back-breaking 80-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter.
"You don't give up the big play, the monster play, against a very good quarterback, but we did give it up and there in lies the issue. That's been a little bit of our Achilles' heel and we'll get it corrected," noted Bucs head coach Greg Schiano.
The Bucs will again be without Wright after he was suspended for four games this week for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs. He had been appealing the ban after taking the drug Adderall.
Also not helping the Buccaneers in a game that featured seven lead changes or ties was settling for three Connor Barth field goals, including a 22-yarder late in the second quarter despite having a 1st-and-goal at the three-yard line.
Tampa Bay will try to keep from getting too discouraged by the fact that the division title may now be out of reach.
"At this point, we're looking strictly at the next game," said quarterback Josh Freeman. "It's a one-game season. We're not looking at divisional opponents. That's stuff that will take care of its self down the road. All we're focusing on is putting together the best performance we can against the team we have out there against us."
The Broncos lead the all-time series between these clubs 5-2. That includes a win in each of the last two meetings, 2004 in Tampa Bay and a home victory during the 2008 campaign.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
As if a matchup with Manning isn't hard enough, Wright's suspension leaves the Buccaneers with two rookies in its starting secondary -- Johnson and safety Mark Barron -- along with fourth-year corner E.J. Biggers. The reserves aren't rich with experience either following the loss of safety Cody Grimm to a hamstring injury that landed him on injured reserve.
Three other rookies fill the depth chart in safeties Ahmad Black and Keith Tandy as well as corner LeQuan Lewis. Part of the lack of experience stems from Tampa Bay's trade of corner Aqib Talib to the New England Patriots on Nov. 1.
"It probably lends to the confidence that we have in our young players, that we felt that we could do that. ... Every decision we make is, what gives the organization that best chance to win. When we made that decision, that's what we thought was best," said Schiano.
Coincidentally, Talib had served a four-game suspension this season while with the Bucs for also taking Adderall.
Of course, the great equalizer for the Buccaneers is safety Ronde Barber, a 16-year vet who had eight tackles versus the Falcons while also intercepting his 47th career pass.
Schiano noted that Barber is helping a young secondary that he feels is playing physical and aggressive. That has shown in the stats as the Bucs are third in the NFL with 16 interceptions and tied for sixth with 22 total takeaways.
Of course, the secondary will need to execute on those aggressive plays against Manning, who has completed 67.7 percent of his passes this season while throwing for 3,260 yards with 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
Manning, a candidate for Comeback Player of the Year, did take a hard shot versus the Chiefs and hit his head on the turf, but Fox said on Monday that his quarterback was cleared in the locker room at halftime.
This Sunday will serve as a reunion for Manning and Tampa Bay tight end Dallas Clark, who was a teammate of Manning's for eight seasons with the Indianapolis Colts. The duo hooked up for 44 touchdowns during that span and Clark has caught 31 passes for 320 yards with three scores this season with the Bucs.
Denver's backfield continues to have a different look thanks to the loss of McGahee. Moreno spearheaded the attack ahead of Ronnie Hillman and Lance Ball despite limited action this season, earning praise from Manning.
"I tip my hat off to Knowshon Moreno. I give real credit to him for being a professional, staying in his play book, knowing when his number is going to be called, even eight to 10 weeks later; he stepped up today and did a heck of a job," complimented Manning.
Denver signed former San Diego fullback Jacob Hester this week. Hester adds pass-catching ability to the mix as he made 55 receptions during his tenure with the Chargers.
"He's a very smart guy. He's a little more of a ���tweener' (between a running back and fullback) type as far as a bigger, more physical type of back," said Fox. "He is very sharp in protections and he gives us a little bit different dimension than the guys we have on the roster at this point."
This figures to be tough sledding for a Buccaneers team that really needs a win. The Broncos should lean heavily on Manning given that Tampa Bay ranks dead last in the NFL in pass defense, giving up 315.5 yards per game.
Add in an inspired Moreno, who does battle with the league's top-ranked run defense, and Denver has more than enough firepower against a team that has struggled to win close games this season.
"We've been in this situation too many times, where it's one point, three points," said Tampa Bay defensive tackle Roy Miller. "You can say we fight, but at the end of the day it's all about wins and losses. We made plays, but we didn't make enough."
That's not an issue for Manning, who should capitalize on his first chance to punch Denver's playoff ticket.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Broncos 28, Buccaneers 17